Social dancing in Buenos Aires today.
I sit, dumbstruck, nerves frying me. I’m one of the many that perch on the circumference, spectators to the ball happening in the circle. The dancers are mostly middle-aged to much older, and all have the look which says they’ve lived through a lot. The smiles they give each other are consoling, forgiving, and asking, but not one is loving. The ancient speakers spurt the last fraying beat of the waltz; the dancers step in tandem for the finishing pose. A moment later, they have detached themselves from the intimate embrace, shyly putting a polite distance. It is then that they betray the nature of their relationship: strangers.
The tango is often seen as a marker of Argentine identity. While the country gained independence from Spain in 1816, the struggle for national identity continued well into the 20th century and can be witnessed even now through cultural niches like the Argentine milonga (dance hall.) Post-independence, Argentines were faced with under-population and sought to bring about a thriving, White civilization through European immigration. Immigration thus surged from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. European influences clashed with existing Creole traditions, resulting in a “chemical combination of races” which attempted to produce the new Argentine essence.
The tango began in the brothels of the lower-class native and immigrant neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. In its first form, the “Old Tango,” the music was rife with obscene sexual lyrics and was only danced by men, as little more than a mode for “primitive male exhibitionism.” It was only in the 1920s that the “New Tango” emerged. The new dance halls, inspired by Parisian cabarets, were a public space for porteños (the citizens of Buenos Aires) of both genders to mingle, providing an appealing counterbalance to their domestic spaces which felt often restrictive. In this period, the tango was globalized through radio and movies and entered into the cultural lives of Western Europe and New York. Its lyrics adapted narrative elements that made them relatable to a wider audience, while its dance shed its sexual aggressiveness and became more accessible. Argentina’s middle class came to embrace the tango as a legitimate source of national identity.
But seeing that the tango was a direct product of a fascination with Parisian and, widely, European culture, in a city whose very architecture is willingly designed to European tastes, just how much Argentines can claim the tango as their “own” remains unanswered. The national essence of tango, to Marta Savigliano, is in its exoticism. If it happens to be that the dance is exoticized, there has to be an exoticizer. This exoticizer, then, is the “colonizing gaze,” the invisible third participant after the male lead and the female follower. The man acts to control the woman’s steps, while the latter’s “instinctive” passion and desire are fierce, her undulating hips suggestive, her footwork excessive and uncertain on her high heels. This performance, beyond simply providing for the colonizer’s entertainment, serves as a justification for violence. The colonizing gaze understands itself to be the male “leader” and the people, specifically Argentina, to be the female “follower.” As something that spawned out of a pool of European immigrants and inspired by European entertainment, it is hardly ironic that the tango would be exploited for European concerns.
While indeed not an authentically Argentine tradition (to imply that an authentic national tradition can exist), Argentina has certainly reclaimed the tango in a particularly cruel twist. In the Buenos Aires milonga, dancers’ behaviors are ruled by strict etiquette and codes. These are arbitrary on the surface: Dancers of either gender “come alone and leave alone,” writes Julie Taylor, an anthropologist and former ballet dancer. A dance is offered by the man with a slight jerk of the head—the cabaceo—which is silently accepted by the woman, and “the code insures that the entire episode, including the set of tangos, can be carried out without exchanging a word…Conversation is taboo.” Not only is the milonga gendered, it is anonymous. To an unfamiliar observer, the Argentine tango can seem cold and almost obscenely impersonal.
This impersonality precisely represents the “grotesque” for Taylor. She likens the tango to an Argentine theater tradition called Grotesco Criollo, one that has expressed the nation’s trauma from many modern economic crises. The grotesque, or the “incongruities” and “excesses” that are the imprints of trauma, is the rare space for victims of violence to seek comfort. Here, the victims are the Argentines themselves, suffering from severe political and economic ramifications from colonialism and recent dictatorship. The tango is carnal and strictly corporeal; the dancer is defined only by their gender and their experience level. Physical attractiveness, social status, and personality are out of the picture. Such is the “democratizing impulse of the tango,” potentially explaining its special appeal to the Argentine public during its military regime.
Dancers return again and again to the milonga in search for contención—belonging. This belonging is not to the other dancer or even to the other gender, but a shared belonging in the milonga and in the nation. In the tango, “one uses the partner to reach the music”: the partner, specifically the partner’s body, is the means to get to a higher idea. Here, parallels with symptoms of trauma victims are disturbing. “Traumatized persons may initiate an eternal and repetitive search, one that may at times seem addictive,” writes Taylor. They search for the “healing embrace” not from intimate connections, as intimacy has betrayed them before, but from strangers. For Ernesto Sabato, a popular 20th-century Argentine novelist, the tango is “a resentful eroticism and a tortuous manifestation of the deep inferiority complex of the new Argentines”—an inferiority complex that can never resolve through mere corporeal expressions.
As long as the tango is danced and the national “essence” of it inhabited, Argentine community is stuck in the European Romantic tradition of a search for a cultural, even ethnic, essence. Indeed, the idea of an essence itself was imagined elsewhere and imported. Regardless, what is identity if not irony? It is hardly unique to Argentina that the nation continuously strives to define what it is, separate from other nations—the tango only goes to show that separation inherently involves emulation. To define yourself separately from an abusive guardian is to copy them; their standards, their ideas of value and uniqueness. The tango is only ever beautiful in the eyes of the European, in its exotic, sad, sexually and politically violent ways. But the endless probing of collective trauma and contención is an activity reserved for the Argentine people.
The ever-globalizing entertainment industry had momentarily pushed the tango to the background of the Argentine consciousness. With the military regime of the late 20th-century, however, the currents of violence came back with redoubled force, and the tango stepped out to the fore, passionate yet submissive to that very violence. Economic bailouts followed, interspersed with pinpricks of peace which were fully conscious of their temporality. In the milonga, the male dancer stands rigidly in the brief exhale before the next song, surveying the crowd with a penetrating yet empty gaze. It meets my equally empty one; he performs a cabaceo. I accept.